Read Local

Since my local farmers’ markets won’t open for awhile I’m declaring March “Read Local” month. For me, this means a month long focus on Minnesota authors.  readlocalI have a few others tucked away too. I loved Jess Lourey’s Murder by Month series even before I moved to Minnesota, so I’m looking forward to that one first. The heroine, Mira, is my Minnesota gardening guru. I’ll post my progress (and reviews) from time to time.

Comment below if you wish to share in the “Read Local” fun. All I ask is you make a commitment to read local for a month and share any great books you encounter.  This post is as good a place as any keep comments, so I’ll pin it for March.  Thanks for playing.

Review: The Fairy Swarm by Suzanne Selfors

I’m a little over two weeks late with my final book for the January Project, but The Fairy Swarm may be my favorite of the bunch.  It took a little longer to finish this book because my 8 year old and I have been reading this together at his bedtime. My 12 year old finished it in an afternoon and I suspect my son finished it long before he and I snuggled up for the last chapter.

The Fairy Swarm is the sixth and (it appears) final book in the excellent “Imaginary Veterinary” series. I really hope it isn’t the last of these characters because I have adored every book in this series, and more importantly, my kids love them too.

In this installment, a swarm of fairies escape the imaginary world and cause lots of trouble in the known world, specifically the town of Buttonville. Ben and Pearl, as assistants to the only Imaginary Veterinarian around, must help capture the fairies before the townspeople become suspicious. When the town’s resident busybody, Mrs. Mulberry calls in an exterminator to rid the town of killer bees, it gets harder and harder for Ben and Pearl to protect the secrets of the imaginary world.  This is a fitting end to the series, although it leaves the door open for my son and I to hope for a special edition follow-up or two. (Please read this Suzanne Selfors.)

The Fairy Swarm delivered on everything I love about this series. The heroes, Pearl and Ben, are both ten years old and they act like real kids. Sometimes, they are smart, sometimes they make bad decisions. Sometimes they are brave, sometimes scared. Sometimes they get their feelings hurt and sometimes, they hurt someone else’s feelings. The emotional landscape of these stories has prompted a lot of conversations in my house. We use moments where the characters feel lonely, clever, angry, patient, scared, bored, curious and so on to discuss times they feel the same way. As a parent, this is huge.

The books also offer terrific insight into friendship. Pearl and Ben come from different backgrounds (Los Angeles resident Ben is visiting his grandfather for the summer; Pearl has never left the town of Buttonville). Neither has lots of friends, but both have good hearts. Pearl often tumbles into action before thinking, whereas Ben tends to think before speaking, but  both learn to appreciate the other’s approach.

Furthermore, Suzanne Selfors is a terrific author. The pacing keeps busy kids wanting to turn the page and the writing is at once clear and vocabulary stretching.

Kids will be motivated to read these stories for the humor and the mythical creatures occupying every page.  Who doesn’t love a good Sasquatch? The titles reveal a primary legendary creature for each book, but many more occupy the pages. Fairies, Dragons, Satyrs, Unicorns, lake monsters and more need veterinary care. The blend of fantasy and real world is charming. Although, thanks to these books, if I ever do run into Big Foot, I know exactly what I’ll need to capture him and turn him into a yoga partner.

I haven’t posted many buy links, but here are links for The Fairy Swarm if you need to buy online, otherwise, beg your local library or independent bookseller to stock it for you.

Amazon

Barnes&Noble

 

Review: Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell

In my search for books with less than 20 reviews to read for The January Project, I came across a Kindle freebie for Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell. The title tells you exactly what to expect, as all four elements are there in the book, and the price was certainly right. But, to be honest, while I love plenty of books with love, death, zombies and/or robots, this wasn’t to my taste.

On the upside, the author created a unique post-apocalyptic world and I particularly enjoyed the complex and multi-layered relationship between humans and robots. The writing is solid, although there were a few missing words here and there that I suspect were part of an uploading issue. First person present tense is not my favorite point of view, but the author used it effectively, particularly in the battle scenes.

The story follows the journey of a fifteen-year old boy, Tristan, who must leave his library home after raiders find it. He sets off to find a new home with his robot dog and Echo, a teen girl who was his childhood friend before she took up with the raiders. En route, they meet other humans, robots and zombies with differing goals and have to decide who is trustworthy and who is not. It’s a good premise, but wasn’t enough to keep me from thinking about other issues with the story.

I have to wonder who was the intended audience? I’m not a big sci-fi reader, so I don’t have a sense if there is an age breakdown or not for materiel intended for teen readers and those for adults. There was almost no swearing, until the last thirty pages, and the shift seemed jarring. Until that point, I would have guessed the audience was tween boys.

What really irritated me as a reader was gender politics. As an adult woman, reading this book made me feel icky. The female characters, of which there were two, may as well have been blow-up dolls. One is beautiful, but has no personality. The other serves the primary purpose of being penetrated. The hero seems to be under the impression this girl wants to be sexually used. We know he’s a hero, because her free wheeling sexuality makes him sad. The hero does not see her as a victim of sexual abuse, so it is never called out an inappropriate behavior. ICK! Double ICK! ICKY, ICK, ICK, ICK! I cannot endorse this book, but the author will probably sell lots of books because of this one review.

This book got me thinking about something I learned in film classes called “The Masculine Gaze.” I suspect there is a literary bias toward “The Feminine Gaze,” particularly in literature aimed at the under 18 set. Maybe some of my dislike for this book stems from my expectations for competent female characters. This bias is a topic I hope to address more fully in a future blog.

In the meantime, I want the books I read to have strong characters, male and female and I want the books my kids read to have strong male and female characters too. Fortunately, there are a lot of great choices out there.

 

Review: War and Grace by Desmond McDougall

I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.

war&graceWar and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.

The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.

And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross.  Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.

If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.

If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.

And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.

 

 

 

Review: Threads of Desire by KM Jackson

There were surprisingly few unread books on my Kindle with less than 20 reviews, but Threads of Desire (Creative Hearts Book 3) by K.M. Jackson was one of them. I have not read the previous two books in the Creative Hearts series, but that didn’t matter. Threads of Desire works as a stand alone, but I suspect there are some Easter Eggs for those who have read the first two in the series.

I Threads of Desire is a contemporary romance with a friends to lovers trope and is the sort of story that can only take place in New York City, and I mean that in the best possible way. The heroine, Gabby, works in the fashion industry, and the hero, Nick, is in finance. The author, K.M. Jackson presents a lived in New York City that is realistic and reminds me of what I miss from the brief time I lived in the NYC area. The city was my second favorite character in the book, behind Gabby.

So often in the romance genre, the characters are all fabulously wealthy and successful, or at least the hero is. Part of my enjoyment in this book came from the characters’ professional struggles, which made them far more relatable than a billionaire-vampire-shiek. I particularly found myself drawn to Gabby, a curvy designer in the size zero fashion world. The author doesn’t reveal Gabby’s size and she doesn’t need to. I love that Gabby is happy and confident with who she is physically. She doesn’t need to lose weight to fit into some off the rack dress. Gabby makes her own style. The author’s description of design and fabrics seemed to come from a place of knowledge that ran deeper than watching a few episodes of “Project Runway.”  Threads of Desire tapped into the same awe I get when watching “Project Runway.” I may not be fashionable myself, but I love witnessing creativity at work. This book gave me a glimpse behind the curtain.

I didn’t love the hero in quite the same way as I did other aspects of the book. But all in all, this was an enjoyable by an author I’ll seek out again. I discovered I have another book by K.M. Jackson on my kindle, Bounce. The short tease for Bounce offered at the end of Threads of Desire has earned that book a promotion to the top of my to-be-read list once I’m through with the January Project. Bounce has a lot of great reviews already.

Happy Arm-iversery to me!

Today is my first Arm-iversery, and a great time to check in on my goals. One year ago today, I bit it on the ice while walking my kids to the bus stop. I couldn’t get back up. Fortunately, there plenty of grown-ups around to help me. Unfortunately, my husband wasn’t one of them. Fortunately,  a neighbor drove me to urgent care. Unfortunately, it was closed. Fortunately, he drove me to the ER. Unfortunately, the X-rays showed my left arm shattered above and below the elbow joint. Unfortunately, I needed emergency surgery and the addition of 14 screws to hold the bone fragments together. And so my recovery saga began.

At my first post-surgery check-up, my surgeon said my arm wouldn’t straighten all the way IMG_1024again and there was a possibility I might not regain full nerve sensation to my fingers. I wore a splint that covered my left arm from arm-pit to thumb joint. The surgeon warned my recovery would take a full year, with most of the progress noticeable by the six month mark. Wiggling my fingers sent jolts of pain through my entire arm, but it did it to reduce the swelling and work the nerves.

This is a picture taken 4 weeks after surgery.  I could not change the bend in my elbow. I could not lift my arm to my shoulder without using my other arm to raise and lower it. Positioning this photo took a long time.

Six weeks after this, I started physical therapy. My right arm grip strength was 58 pound. My left arm grip strength was 2. Normal for a non-dominant hand would have expected to be about 45. I couldn’t hold a book or a toothbrush in my left hand. I couldn’t grip a cup or a coffee mug, but that wouldn’t have mattered because I couldn’t bend my arm enough to bring a beverage anywhere near my mouth. When my physical therapist asked about my long term goal, you would think drinking a cup of coffee would be enough, but no. I said I want to do one push-up on my arm-iversery.

Today is my arm-iversery. Can I do a push-up? Technically, no. I cannot do the one military style push-up I envisioned myself doing. But I can do one set of 12 on the knee push-ups, two sets of 15 push-up style motion with the TRX bands at the gym, five pushups where I let myself fall to the ground the last two inches, rest a second and then push back up into plank, AND do one set of eight “push-ups” of the lazy style permitted in physical education classes where I start in plank, go half way down and then push back up.

arm-iversaryThis is me today. My scars have faded and most days my pain is minimal. So I can’t do a push up.  My left hand grip strength is in the 40s. I can raise a mug, shampoo my hair, shovel the driveway and walk my kids to the bus stop. I also chaperoned a 6th grade weeklong field trip where I belayed kids on a rock wall and paddled on a five mile canoe trip. My alter ego even published a short story, so the nerves to my fingers and my keyboarding skills still work.

Recovery was long journey, but having a clear goal helped my muddle through those days I wanted to quit because of the pain.

Oh, and, in case you didn’t notice – my arm is straight.

 

Review: Hearth Song by Lois Greiman

So this is kind of cool – I am reviewing a book that is not even out yet. I was in the right place at the right time when the author, Lois Greiman, handed out some advance copies.  She’s been on my “Authors I really should read” list for a couple of years. Even though my copy says “Advance Uncorrected Proof,” in my mind, this is a polished finalized work.  The editing was really clean, which is something I cannot say for a number of books I’ve purchased or have attempted to read.

As I read Hearth Song, I thought a lot about genre. I’d plunk this into subcategories  like  “Fiction -women – ranchers – horses – parenting,” but there is a keyword to describe this book that defies categories. The core story revolves around Bravura Lambert and her journey from insecure to confident. Bravura is a largely self-sufficient woman who owns a business and cares for her five-year-old autistic daughter, Lily, while her husband, Dane, lives away and works on the Dakota oil wells. I was a bit overwhelmed in the first chapter, which takes place at a rodeo type event, because I had not read the previous book in this series, Hearth Stone. There were a lot of characters introduced, and some of them had two or three names (Bravura is also called Vura and Vey for instance.) I’m glad I stuck with the book, because the character journey pulled me in. At times, I wanted to yell at the heroine, and at other times, I wanted to be a shoulder for her to cry on and at still other points, I cheered her on.

Ultimately, I’d add a subcategory for empathy. Greiman drew me into a world that was as foreign to me as Mars and made me care about a character, Bravura, who I wouldn’t seek out or identify with in real life. That’s the beauty of storytelling and why I read.  I doubt I’ll go back and read the first book in the series, because I wasn’t 100% in love with the ranch setting and because that book has reviews, but this was a great way to kick off The January Project.